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Trying to learn the 赣 variety


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Hello everyone,

As the title says I would love to hear some ideas on how to learn Gan, which is the widest spoken local language in Jiangxi. (The others being Hakka, Xiang and Wu)

I'm interested in both 南昌话 which is the standard variety of Gan, since I will be in Nanchang for 4 years and 遂川话 which is a very small dialect of Gan, spoken in the hometown of my wife's family.

Which ways do I have to study lesser known languages like these in general? Would you advise me to buy teaching materials? I don't know if there are any at all, but if so, then probably for Nanchanghua only. Then again you never know about the quality of these books anyway.

Another idea that I came up with is to buy a book for Mandarin and then follow the teaching method of this book, only replacing every single word and sentence structure with the Gan equivalent. This would require that someone actually took the time and went through whole textbooks with me, which is rather improbable. Would you think this makes any sense?

Just going out and listening and speaking is hard. First of all, I don't understand a single word of what people are saying, second I would like to have a more systematic way of learning.

What are your ideas? Who has experience in learning 方言 without any material available? I'm glad for every peace of advice!

Thanks in advance,


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A voice recorder on your mobile phone is one of the best resources you have. Use it continuously and wisely, imitating a range of native voices. From the old granny with the shouty voice to the mild-mannered middle-aged wannabe scholar.


Get a good grip on the phonemes you'll hear; have a look at the Wikipedia page for 南昌话 and for 吉安话 and maybe get acquainted with the IPA. I notice that 日 starts with a palatal nasal for example, that there's final non-nasal consonants (checked tone), and a final in /yɔn/ for 軟. 


Those are the essentials for the modern language learner playing it totally by ear.





However, Chinese dialectology has progressed far enough that there are some resources available:


A quick Baidu can yield some pretty interesting results.


Calquing on Mandarin via textbooks seems... unnecessary. But it might be the only way if your teachers have no other way of conveying mutual meaning. 


For Gan, the revered 《现代汉语方言大词典》 series includes 南昌话 but not 吉安话. This is an extremely valuable resource for the kinds of expressions that you might hear and be able to use, ones that introduce a shade of the local colour. More recent linguistic introductions can be sourced e.g. on Amazon.cn, and of course a Google Scholar alert can be useful if you're quite a hardcore (wannabe) linguist.



For individual lexemes, I find that the 漢字古今音資料庫 is a great resource if you know how to use it. For example: across the top, hover over 現代, select 贛語 > 吉茶片 > 吉安 and this will be added to your menu on the left. Put a character into 字 above and watch it pop out with a pronunciation of that character in that topolect. E.g. 火 = /fo53/.

You can also search it by IPA phonemes.

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Agree with above.


Also, I have a small bit of experience learning a variety of 客家話 in Jiangxi. And by small I mean a few months totally immersed in it with only a few people who could speak Mandarin. The dual Mandarin-Hakka speakers were the key. After a while you'll start to hear repeated patterns, particularly the stuff that is a bit homomorphous with Mandarin. But basically my "learning" consisted of constantly asking the few Mandarin speakers how to say a particular word or phrase in the other language, or ask the Mandarin speakers what the other Kejiahua speakers just said. You'll need some fairly deep guanxi and find some fairly bored people willing to put up with that. In fact I'd say this the main key. Finding the right people that will let you learn the language. I don't think you will have much luck learning non-Mandarin languages formally - eg through lessons, courses, books, etc. You need to someone insert yourself into the speakers' community.


One problem learning small Chinese languages is resistance to outsiders and shame about their own language. Most non-Mandarin speakers have made strong efforts to make sure they or at least their kids speak Mandarin and aren't 'burdened' with their own language. You have to be at least conscious of this. Maybe the feeling is similar to mastering Mandarin in China then having people insist on speaking English to you even though they can only string together 1-2 words. In a way they are discounting all the effort you have made to learn the more "important" language. Another problem is that many non-Mandarin speakers will slide into Mandarin when talking to you, particularly as a foreigner, unconsciously. One way to get around the first problem is to make sure your Mandarin is quite good. I believe they may be more willing to take  your study as more than a joke if you can prove you're capable of learning another Chinese language (not to mention the benefits of already knowing a similar language).

Given the nature of non-Mandarin Chinese languages I think a textbook might not be that useful (if you can even find one that is). It depends on how "standardised" the language is. I say this because non-Mandarin languages tend to have dramatic geographical variety, even at small distances. Also, translating from Mandarin to another Chinese is not necessarily a simple matter of substitution. Other Chinese languages have different grammar which makes this complicated.

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Thank you for your answers!

@Michaelyus I will definitely try the voice recorder thing out. I have a lot of opportunities to do so during the weekends in my family's home (for 遂川话) and during longer busrides through the city.

As far as phonetics are concerned, I would say I grasped some of it already, but some systematic reading into that can do no harm. I will have to look for other sources though, since I don't have a VPN installed and thus can't open the Chinese Wikipedia site.

The Taiwanese website you linked me to is amazing! I instantly bookmarked it!

@stapler Your countryside experience sounds so great! My family is from a small village in the South of Jiangxi, too. A significant part of the villagers speaks Hakka as their native language. I will be there over the Chinese New Year again.

I have encountered the attitude about Chinese people's native languages as well, sadly. My wife even stops her mother from speaking 遂川话 to our son. I understand the thoughts that stand behind these attitudes, but it is hard to convince Chinese people that some of these thoughts have to be considered from multiple perspectives. After all I am a foreigner and what do I know. ^^

I'm aware that there are grammatical differences between different Chinese languages, that was also part of my consideration. That for example, when the textbook teaches me how to make comparisons in Mandarin in lesson 15, I would instead ask a Gan speaker how he would do it in his variety. But still, this seems to be a rather unrealistic project. I might however come back to that idea in later parts of my life, then in a more academic scope. :)

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I‘ve been learning chinese dialects for a while now, and let me tell you that IPA it's a must. I recommend you to begin with 南昌方言詞典, get some native speakers friends and try watching local tv programmes, songs are also helpful.

Here you have some resources that might be useful!


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Thank you.

I have known IPA since 15 years old and I'm 27 now. Back in school my grades were all messed up because I spent my whole spare time reading linguistic articles (ok, and practising martial arts).

Thanks for the resources!

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The (U.S.) Defense Language Institute has some freely available English-Gan learning materials with its "Chinese-Gan Language Survival Kits" and "Cultural Orientation - Gan".  The former in particular has mp3s of English sentences followed by its translation in Gan dialect first spoken quickly and then a second time slowly broken into various units.  Although the kit has many useful sentences for colloquial conversation (with your wife's family) they also have some not so useful example sentences like "This is a United States Navy war ship." and "Do not stop if the convoy is attacked!".  There are associated pdf's of the audio with English, Simplified Hanzi, as well as a poorly-explained and possibly tone-less romanization system.




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